I used to live in New York and would always tell people: “Los Angeles is the craziest place you will ever visit.” I would then go on to explain that Los Angeles was so crazy because it had so many invisible spaces that are simply ignored by most people, places left to fester wild, without interference. Sometimes I would refer to an example of the troll under the bridge from the children’s story, The Three Billygoats Gruff . Though there were crazy things in New York, they were mostly exposed and moderated by society due to the social density of the place. To me, the troll under the bridge was not a necessarily bad thing– I was more in awe of the fact that there were metaphorical trolls all over LA, a fantasy world hiding in the cracks and crevices of the sprawling urban form.
Now that I have moved back to LA, I realize the meaning of this- Los Angeles has many parts that remain quasi-wild, due to the sheer scale of management and maintenance that a city of such sprawling proportions requires. The city of Los Angeles is massive and the idea that it could all be tied up in a neat bow is just not possible. And this is what I love about exploring. If you wander around LA, you always find surprising things, insane juxtapositions of nature vs. man.
I tend to walk around a lot, not to get anywhere, but to see things. I walk the way I hike, stopping to stare and smell, looking at plants. To me, this is the best way to experience the city, a city that so many visitors and natives only see through cars and freeways.
I submitted a proposal for a contest with LA/2B (a collaboration between the DOT and the city’s planning department trying to get Angelinos more involved with their vision of the city) and Good Magazine for my ideal car-free day. My idea included a walking tour augmented by train, where a small group of people could explore these strange spaces and become more aware of the wild parts of the city that are all around them.
One thing that I have always loved about LA is the fact that there are so many places you can go that will be completely deserted. Places that feel like they are secret, unexplored, mysterious. From a more traditional planning sense, this is not what you are looking for in a place- we are taught that “eyes on the street” make us safe. As an LA native, I will insist that these secret private spaces of desolation are something you have to love if you love LA: I enjoy this sense of danger. To an outsider, I would compare it to exploring the outlying areas of a town, the spaces that divide cities that are ambiguous and unkempt. In most cities, these are actually in wild areas. In LA, they’re probably by a freeway, train track, or river. This is my definition of Urban Wilderness.
For my wilderness tour, I wanted to introduce people to the idea that man made spaces can be wild in similar ways to natural open space. No matter how hard Los Angeles has attempted to defeat nature, for instance with the channeling of the LA River, nature fights back. In my opinion the best example of this story is going to the root of the settlement of Los Angeles, looking at where and why people settled.
We explored the historical transect following the Pueblo, to the LA River/Arroyo Seco Confluence to the North Fork of the Arroyo. To me, the Arroyo Seco is one of the greatest assets of the area, and a logical geographic hotbed. By tracing this waterway, we can reveal the logic to a path obscured by cars and concrete. Engaging the landscape and learning its history, people can better understand the real natural processes (not the will of humans) that have dictated the city’s layout and sprawl.
A story I was told by Tim Brick, Managing Director of the Arroyo Seco Foundation, illustrated a different first Pueblo, where the first party of Spanish settlers parked themselves along the bank of the “dry river” that they called Arroyo Seco. Come the rainy season, the camp was flooded and many died, instigating the move to higher ground and the current site in Downtown LA. The importance of nature to LA history is constantly glossed over, but the only reason we are all here is because of that watershed… There are many aspects of Los Angeles history that people are completely unaware of.
In walking around and looking at things, you can begin to see the history of the city and learn to read the signs of development. You can tell how historic land is by the presence of native plants. In the Elysian Park hillsides, you can find a plethora of native plant matter because the land was granted so long ago, it was never cleared for another purpose. On our walk we identified toyon, black walnut, sugarbush, wild cucumber, cliff aster, and california buckwheat.
There are so many fascinating stories about LA history that one can read and imagine through landscape, the next post will explore the landmarks and stories we discussed on the tour.